When Can a Puppy Leave Their Mom? · The Wildest

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When Can a Puppy Leave Their Mom?

Of course, you’re their parent, too. But they need their biological mom for as long as possible.

by Dr. Amy Fox, DVM
May 5, 2024
Mother dog and her puppy.
Nata Segueza / Stocksy

While people sometimes bring home puppies under eight weeks of age, it’s ideal for their healthy development to remain with their mom until at least eight weeks of age or older. They rely on their moms for nutrition, nurturing, and learning social skills that will help them thrive as well-adjusted adult dogs.

Tiny puppies are undeniably adorable with their clumsy giant paws and baby shark teeth, so you may be wondering how early you can adopt a puppy in order to maximize the puppy phase. The answer is that it depends, but ideally, puppies should stay with their moms and littermates as long as possible, until about eight to 10 weeks old.

Mama dogs are not only physically caring for and nursing puppies but also teaching them many important lessons in how to behave and socialize. And while this is crucial to healthy development, many times puppies are in need of a home much earlier for legitimate reasons, too. In those cases, there are steps you can take to promote healthy development for puppies who are separated early.

When can puppies be adopted? Important puppy milestones

Newborn puppies are completely helpless at birth; their eyes and ears are closed and they are unable to walk or regulate their body temperature. A mama dog has to do everything for them; this includes nursing round-the-clock, providing body heat and snuggles, stimulating them to poop and pee, keeping them clean, and physically carrying them from place to place.

Over the first few weeks of life, puppies pass through many important milestones that allow them to become more independent. The process of transitioning from nursing exclusively to eating solid foods is called weaning and is the biggest milestone for puppies to be able to leave their mom.

Ideally, this is a gradual process that takes place over many weeks as puppies start eating more and more solid food and nursing less frequently. At the same time, their mom and littermates are also providing important lessons in socialization that extend well beyond weaning.

When it comes to considering when a puppy is ready to be adopted, these are the main points to keep in mind: 

Nutritional dependency

Puppies are completely dependent on their moms for nutrition until they are weaned. Mother’s milk is the best food source for growing puppies as it provides a complete and balanced source of nutrition in addition to important immune factors. Puppies receive crucial immune protection through nursing that boosts their own immunity to infections. Most puppies nurse exclusively for the first three to four weeks of life and then start adding in mushy solid foods and gradually wean by six to eight weeks old.

Physical and cognitive development

In addition to nutrition, puppies are also receiving many other important inputs from their mom. In the first few weeks of life, mama dogs are doing everything to keep their puppies safe, healthy, and clean. As they grow, puppies look to their mom as a role model for everything; from learning how to eat solid foods, to l earning how to play, and generally how to be a dog. Littermates also serve as important teachers and playmates allowing puppies to test the limits of how hard to play, wrestle, and climb.

Social and emotional development

The biggest reasons for encouraging puppies to stay with their mom beyond basic weaning is for the huge social and emotional growth they experience. The primary window for social and emotional development in puppies is from about three to four weeks old to 12 to 14 weeks old. When puppies are with their mom and littermates, they learn tons about behavior, including how to read other dogs’ body language, how to play, and how to communicate.

If they jump or bite their mom or littermates too hard, they are swiftly but gently corrected. They are also adjusting to all the sights, smells, and sounds around them during this time. 

Risks of early separation from mom

There are many situations when a puppy is separated from their mom earlier than the ideal timing. Sometimes, puppies are orphaned if their mom is injured or killed in an accident. Crowded shelters may need to adopt puppies out as soon as possible in order to find them homes and save their lives, usually at a minimum of eight weeks old.

Other times, there may be a medical reason why their mom cannot nurse or care for them, or the puppies may have health problems that require them to be separated. In most cases, these puppies will turn out just fine with some additional support, but there are some important risks to be aware of when puppies are separated early: 

Inadequate nutrition and immune support

Puppies who are orphaned or separated before they can be weaned will need to be bottle-fed with special puppy formula. This requires round-the-clock feedings as well as providing heat support and stimulating them to pee and poop.

Puppy formula is not a perfect substitute for mother’s milk, however, and it lacks the immune factors that protect puppies against certain germs. Therefore, puppies who are bottle-fed are more at risk for complications, delayed growth, and illness, especially in the first few weeks of life.

Behavioral issues

Without the important input and guidance from their mother and littermates, puppies may miss out on learning how to be dogs in many important ways. They may not understand how to properly interact with other dogs and read other dogs’ body language , and they may not have learned to distinguish which sights, smells, or sounds are safe and which are cause for alarm. This can lead to many different behavioral issues in adult dogs such as fearfulness , biting, anxiety, and/or destructiveness. 

Difficulty adjusting to new environments

During the socialization window from about four weeks old until 14 weeks old, puppies are more accepting of new experiences and learn to adjust to them. During this time, they should be exposed to as many different positive experiences as possible to help them become well-adjusted.

When they are with their mom and littermates, they get to have lots of experiences and interactions while maintaining a secure bond. This helps them to feel confident and develop into well-adjusted adults later in life.

Stress: Do puppies feel sad when they leave their mom? 

The weaning process can be very stressful for mom and puppies, especially if it is abrupt. When puppies are separated from their mother suddenly, especially if they were not completely weaned yet, it’s very distressing.

Mother dogs provide more than just food. They are nurturing, safe, and take care of all their puppies’ basic needs. A sudden separation is not only a major physical adjustment but also leads to a loss of emotional attachment. This kind of stressful event can have profound effects on physical and behavioral health.

When is the earliest puppies can leave their mom?

It is important to keep in mind that there are ideal ages for puppies to leave their mom and be adopted but in reality this is not always possible. The goal is to keep puppies with their mom and littermates as long as possible in order to foster the healthiest development.

Here are some important points to keep in mind: 

Minimum age of eight weeks

Puppies should remain with their mom for a minimum of eight weeks, and the ideal is closer to 10 to 12 weeks. This will maximize their opportunities for social and emotional development. Regardless of what age your puppy is separated from their mom, all dogs will need ongoing exposures and safe socialization experiences to continue learning and developing. 

Completed weaning and initial socialization period

The longer puppies are with their mom, the better the chances that they will be weaned naturally and gradually. The weaning process usually starts around three to four weeks old when puppies may start eating small amounts of solid food in addition to nursing and by the time they are about eight weeks old, they are no longer nursing and are eating solid foods exclusively.

This time frame also gives puppies a good foundation in how to interact with other dogs and develop their social skills. The more time they have to learn from their mom and littermates, the better. 

Exceptions for orphaned or abandoned puppies with special care

Unfortunately not every puppy has the chance to stay with their mom until they are eight to 12 weeks old. Many times, puppies are orphaned if their mom is injured or killed in an accident, or puppies are adopted out too early from backyard litters or are found as strays. In these cases, bottle-feeding and caring for orphaned puppies can save their lives.

If you are not experienced in bottle-feeding puppies, be sure to see a vet right away and get a crash course in how to do so properly, as very young puppies are fragile and need special care. These puppies will also need extra support to get proper socialization as they grow. In the best-case scenarios, orphaned puppies are fostered with another litter of puppies around the same age, and/or with a nursing mom, or another patient adult dog who will nurture them and teach them good behavior. 

Supporting a newly adopted puppy

No matter what age your puppy is when they come to live with you, there are many proactive steps you can take to make their adjustment easier and set you and your new puppy up for success. Here are some important steps to take: 

Puppy-proof your home

This is best done before you bring your new pup home to ensure you have a safe space free of dangers and toxins that can get them into trouble. Try to puppy-proof the entire home, but if you can’t, focus on puppy-proofing one confined area that will be your puppy’s home base while they are adjusting and where they can be safely left unsupervised. 

Gather necessary supplies

Do some research into the best crates, bowls, foods, toys, leashes, and harnesses for the kind of puppy you plan to adopt and try to have as many supplies on hand before they come home. This will allow you to make thoughtful choices instead of scrambling for whatever you can find last-minute.

Choose a veterinarian

Try to find a local vet for your puppy’s initial check-up and vaccinations. Some shelters and dog rescues will ask for the name of your vet ahead of time as part of their screening process, so you may need to have one in place before adopting.

Enroll in positive reinforcement-based puppy training classes

This is one of the best things you can do for your new puppy. Not only does it help you bond and teach you techniques for how to train your new puppy, it also gives your puppy valuable opportunities to socialize and to continue their social and emotional development.

Provide a safe, comfortable space and consistent routine

Consistency is an important part of helping your new puppy adjust and feel confident in their new home. Try to feed and walk your dog at the same times each day and build in lots of opportunities for play and cuddles. This helps your dog know what to expect and to feel safe. Establishing a special place for your dog to retreat to, whether it is a crate , a special mat, or another defined space will also help your puppy feel secure and know they have a place of their own.

Continue socialization and training efforts

Socialization and training should be lifelong efforts for you and your pup no matter their age. The more opportunities they have to socialize with other dogs, have enriching experiences, and continue to learn, the more fulfilling their days will be. 

FAQs (People also ask):

What are the effects of early socialization in puppies?

Early socialization allows puppies to learn from other dogs. They learn how to play and communicate as well as how to read other dogs’ body language. After 14 weeks of age, it is more difficult for dogs to adapt to new experiences so it’s crucial that young puppies have these opportunities.

Can puppies leave their mom at six weeks? 

Technically, yes, as they can eat solid food at that time and be weaned from their mothers. But it’s not in their best interest; they will miss out on the benefits of a more gradual weaning process and important social and emotional development that occurs when they stay with their mom and littermates.

What are puppy behavior milestones? 

There are many important milestones for puppies that mark changes in their growth and development. It’s important to know that there is a crucial window for socialization between four weeks old and 14 weeks old when puppies are most receptive to new experiences and it is very important that they are exposed to lots of new sights, sounds, smells, and other dogs during this time to help them grow into well-adjusted dogs. 


Amy Fox

Dr. Amy Fox, DVM

Amy Fox, DVM is a small animal veterinarian in New York City. A lifelong animal lover, Dr. Fox studied biology in college and then worked as a veterinary nurse before pursuing veterinary school at Cornell University.  She has worked in many different settings including shelter medicine, emergency medicine, general practice, and animal cruelty and forensics. She is especially interested in nutrition, preventative medicine and care for senior pets. Dr. Fox also enjoys writing about veterinary medicine and teaching. In her free time she loves to cook, garden, and go for long runs. 

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